What Is a Fugue?

Apr 16, 2017

You don’t need to know anything about classical music to love it. But a deeper understanding of its rich history and context can add something special to your listening experience. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston takes us on this short flight of the fugue, which reached the height of its popularity in the Baroque period.

German composer J.S. Bach is credited with developing the form that relies on counterpoint: the combination of two or more musical lines. He honed his mastery of the fugue over the course of his life. Book I of Bach's famous The Well-Tempered Clavier was published in 1722 when he was 37. Eight years before his death at age 65, Bach published Book II of the The Well-Tempered Clavier. These collections of preludes and fugues in all 24 keys from C through B minor are a benchmark in the development of the fugue, and classical music in general.

“Well-tempered” refers to the keyboard tuning system Bach used to keep the musical lines, or voices, from clashing. There’s much more about “well-tempered” tuning here.

Radio script:

Meridee Duddleston: Symphonies, suites, sonatas, études. Forms of classical compositions are as varied as species within a genus, including the fugue at the height of its melodious intricacy.

[Music: J.S. Bach: “Little Fugue” in G Minor, BWV578, Great Bach Transcriptions, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra Centenary Edition Vol 1.]

MD: Rules of construction govern the fugue before it takes off on its arch of combined, but independent, melodies. One rule is that at the beginning, a single subject or voice stands alone.

[MUSIC: Bach: Fugue in C Major, The Well-Tempered Clavier; Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard]

MD: Then the subject repeats and divides and multiplies with complementary answers.

[MUSIC: Bach: Fugue in C Major, The Well-Tempered Clavier; Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard]

MD: J.S. Bach elevated the fugue to a work of complexity and beauty never before heard. In 1722, the year before Bach moved his large family to Leipzig, he published Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, his influential collection of preludes and fugues in every key, starting with C.

[MUSIC: Bach: Fugue in C Major; The Well-Tempered Clavier; Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard]

MD: The fugue reached its popular pinnacle during his time, but later Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Bartok, and many others composed from the rules, idioms, and turns of phrase he refined.

Some scholars consider the fugue a technique rather than a type of music, a musical piling on of voices. Regardless, the fugue endures and, when you listen, it is recognizable in its many permutations, like this one by Maynard Ferguson.

[MUSIC: Maynard Ferguson/The Fugue/A Message From Newport (1958).]